Written by: Sam Kabbel, CPDT-KA and Terri Hardison, PhD
Written by: Sam Kabbel, CPDT-KA and Terri Hardison, PhD
There is so much misunderstanding with regard to dominance and dogs. Unfortunately, so many people in the dog training and behavior industry use inappropriate data, faulty science, and myths that have been around for a long time when referring to dominance. We have addressed six common myths with dominance in dog training and dog behavior.
Myth #1: Dominance refers to the way a high-ranking wolf or dog maintains control over its subordinates.
The truth behind the myth: It is perhaps ironic that a term that has come to mean so much pertaining to dog originated in the 1930s with respect to birds. Chickens, the subjects of the first study of social dominance have a strict (or linear) hierarchy where the highest ranking chicken, the ‘alpha’ has the most access to seed, and can peck all of the other chickens without fear of retaliation. The second highest-ranking chicken, the ‘beta’, has access to the second highest amount of seed, and can peck any other chicken besides the alpha without fear of retaliation. It is from this behavior that the term ‘pecking order’ comes. Dominance can be defined, then, as: the ability to maintain or control access to resources. In the case of chickens, the resource is primarily seed.
Of course, the usage of the term dominance as it pertains to domestic dogs stems not from its observation in chickens, but in dogs’ ancestors, wolves. Wolves, like chickens, also have a social hierarchy. However, unlike chickens, who live with an “all chickens for themselves” mentality, wolves live and work cooperatively. They must live and function as a group. Working together, they can hunt prey that is larger than they are, maintain “safety in numbers” and work together to raise pups. This behavior necessitates a social hierarchy for the purpose of keeping things in order to maintain group harmony. If all wolves in a pack were vying for the same resources (the best or most food, the best sleeping locations, and mating rights), the resulting fights would place all the wolves in the pack in jeopardy. Unlike chickens, for whom aggression (pecking) and dominance are completely linked, social dominance in a pack is not about behaving aggressively—instead, it is about avoiding aggression. To summarize, dominance is not a means of controlling subordinates. It is about controlling access to resources, and its primary purpose is to avoid aggression and maintain group order.
Myth #2: Dominance is established by means of aggression.
The truth behind the myth: It is important to note that dominance and aggression are not at all synonymous. The displays of dominance and submission are an elaborate way for both wolves and dogs to avoid aggression. Although there are certainly times when a more dominant wolf or dog will behave aggressively to maintain control of a resource, most often there will be an understanding of the ‘rules’ that state that the more dominant wolf or dog has the right to the resource in question. In fact, dominance is not even as much determined by the behavior of the dominant dog as it is about the subordinates. That is, by accepting the leadership and control of resources of the dominant dog, the subordinates grant that dog the right to those resources. In fact, those who study wolves have found that Alpha-wolves who maintain their control with excessive aggression do not maintain alpha stats for long. Instead, the lower ranking wolves typically kill or banish such a leader.
Myth #3: Dogs view their canine and human family members as pack-mates just like wolves.
The truth behind the myth: Although the evidence demonstrates that dogs evolved primarily from wolves, dogs differ from wolves in several important ways. First, because domestic dogs live with humans, who usually provide for their every need (and then some!), the need to live and work together as a group does not exist as it does in their wolf ancestors. Thus, the need for a relatively strict social hierarchy is not present. Instead, dogs have what can be referred to as a more fluid hierarchy. Wolves maintain a fairly consistent ranking, and the most dominant, or “alpha” wolf controls access to virtually all of the important resources. The ranking of domestic dogs within a family, however, varies depending on the importance of each individual resource to each individual dog. One dog in a family, for example, might expect to control all of the toys in the household. Another might expect the best resting areas or access to the owner. If you have more than one dog, spend some time carefully observing their behavior. Most often, you will notice that different resources are important to different dogs, and each will be dominant over the resources they care most about. Misunderstandings about the fluid nature of domestic dogs’ social dominance hierarchy can lead to the idea that one dog is the ‘alpha’ or highest ranking dog. This can lead to problems among pet dogs that don’t typically occur in a wolf pack. While there are certainly families in which one dog is dominant over most of the resources (usually because the other dog or dogs do not care about those resources), most often, dogs share the dominance. Problems between family dogs arise when two dogs both find the same resource important.
This notion of social dominance is also important when considering the oft-given advice that insists that humans must be viewed as “alpha” over pet dogs in the family. It is important for pet owners to maintain control over certain resources the dog views as valuable. Unfortunately, many of the methods suggested to help owners obtain “alpha” status are not based on a true understanding of canine behavior. By understanding the origins of the dominance concept and how it relates to the domestic dog, pet owners will be better equipped to judge the validity of behavior and training suggestions they encounter.
Myth #4: Dominant behaviors in domestic dogs arise because the dogs do not respect the owners’ “alpha” status.
The truth behind the myth: Many behaviors common to domestic dogs have been attributed to expressions of dominance. Does your dog push through doorways ahead of you? Does he bark or paw at you for attention? Does your dog pull on a leash so he is always ahead of you on a walk? Does he insist on being fed before your family sits down for dinner? Will your dog protest if you try to move him from a favored resting place? Will he growl if you try to take a prized possession (like a rawhide bone) away from him? Many sources of behavior and training information suggest that these behaviors clearly indicate that the dog is behaving ‘dominantly’ and is therefore trying to take over the ‘alpha position’ of the household. These sources suggest that ineffective leadership has led the dog to try to assert his own leadership over his family members, and that the way to resolve these issues is to ensure that the owner regains the respect and leadership afforded to the alpha wolf.
As we stated earlier, however, this is a gross oversimplification of the dominance concept. This oversimplification can lead owners to attempt ineffective or even harmful methods of trying to “show their dog who is boss.” In fact, each of the examples given above is demonstrative of a dominant behavior: in each example, the dog is behaving in such a way as to gain control over resources (e.g., space or freedom, attention, food, etc.). However, simply because a dog behaves in this manner does not necessarily imply that he is trying to assert his ‘alpha’ status. Instead, he has probably learned that the behaviors he is exhibiting have earned him resources in the past! If pawing at you for attention gets the dog your attention, then clearly that behavior works! If growling at a person who tries to move a dog against his wishes gets that person to back away, then growling is a behavior that works. In each of these examples, however, the dominant action is not about controlling the owner—it is about controlling the resources that are important to the dog. This leads to an important point: Dominance is not an innate factor of your dog’s personality. It is about his behavior. Personality traits may dictate how persistent the dog is about obtaining those resources. While certainly some dogs will exhibit more dominant behaviors than others, they frequently repeat these behaviors simply because they’ve worked for them in some capacity.
By understanding that dominance is not established by maintaining control over another individual but about controlling the resources important to that individual, dog owners will be able to teach their dogs appropriate ways to earn the things that are valuable to them. When evaluating suggestions for dealing with problem behaviors, particularly when those suggestions are based on a notion of dominance, pet owners should ask themselves if the suggested remedy is about controlling the dog or controlling the dog’s resources.
Myth #5: Playing “Tug-of-War” games causes dogs to be competitive and teaches them to be dominant.
The truth behind the myth: The rationale behind this myth states that if dogs are allowed to play competitive tug-of-war games with their owners, they will learn that they can compete for dominant status with those owners. This notion is based on the idea that dog’s ancestors, wolves, tug and compete for resources and that the wolf who wins these competitions is more dominant than the loser. In fact, this belief is somewhat misleading. Some variations of this myth suggest Tug-of-War games are ok as long as the humans initiate and finish the game, and that the object being tugged ends up in the position of the human.
In reading the earlier in this article, you have probably recognized that because they involve a prized resource (the tug toy!) tug-of-war games are, in fact, related to dominance. However, playing tug does not necessarily lead to a dog believing that he is dominant over people! Instead, tug is a wonderful way to teach a dog many types of boundaries. Tug can be used to teach dogs to drop an item on command, offer behaviors to receive goodies, and to wait to take an item until told. Each of these lessons can help dogs recognize that their owners are in control over the resources in question. This sounds a lot like helping the dogs recognize the owner’s dominance, doesn’t it?! By recognizing and utilizing the true nature of dominance, owners can use a fun game to teach boundaries and respect to their four-legged companions.
Myth #6: In order to assert your dominance over your dog, you must always eat before him.
The truth behind the myth: The idea behind this myth is that in wolves, the alpha wolf eats before all others, and the least dominant wolf eats last. By showing your pet dog that you eat first, he purportedly will learn that you hold a higher status than he does. Again, this is an oversimplification of wolf behavior. In fact, ethologists (i.e., people who study animal behavior) have observed that the “alpha eats first” rule is not always the case. Instead, the hungriest wolves eat first with rank determining their priority of order as to who gets the richest areas on the carcass. Necessity and drive determines who gets to the carcass first, not respect. Further, recall that by domesticating the dog, humans have removed the need for pack cooperation. Instead, today’s pet dogs don’t usually have to hunt and kill their own food. It comes right to them, in a bowl! Thus, making parallels between wolf and dog behavior in this case can be misleading. It is important to note, however, that a dog’s food is in fact a prized resource. By maintaining control over that resource, therefore, humans attain a degree of status, whether or not the human eats before the dog. Pet owners can teach their dogs that in order to get their dinner; they must offer a desired behavior.
The science of dog behavior is multi-faceted and very complex. Mistakes are made when trying to simplify things by creating these one-size-fits-all guiding principles. There are so many misconceptions with regard to dog training and dog behavior. The problem is that these misconceptions lead to ineffective and often inappropriate training methods as well as a completely inaccurate framework for resolving problems. It is critical that pet owners receive expert professional help for training and behavior problems. A look at true dog behavior can dispel these myths and provide a proper framework when working with our beloved canine companions.